So: Parliament has been prorogued. What is to be done about it? Answer: not bloody much.
Certainly there’s no evidence the public is up in arms about it, notwithstanding the Star’s typically tendentious headline. Smug Tory types whose response to every principled objection is “nobody cares” are, unfortunately, right: the 38,000 plus who have subscribed to that facebook page are indicative of very little: most, I would bet, are opposition partisans. Were their situations reversed, they would be saying the same things the Tories are.
Neither can we expect much from the opposition leaders: neither Ignatieff nor Layton could apparently be arsed to postpone their vacations — though Iggy at least managed to release a wan op-ed piece denouncing the government in the series of sentence fragments (“Messy. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Democracy is all those things.”) that are the preferred idiom of the contemporary politician. “Last week’s shutting down of Parliament was a key moment,” he writes. “It was one of those moments of supreme clarity. The audacity. The epic scale of the cynicism. The arrogance of a regime that thinks it can get away with just about anything.”
But that’s all going to change now. The opposition leader isn’t going to take this lying down. Nosir. No, to protest this outrage, he’s going to … go on a listening tour. “Mr. Harper may not want to face the public, but we will get out there and meet Canadians in universities, in town hall meetings and other public events from coast to coast to coast. We will seek their views and exchange ideas.” That’ll show ’em. Just wait till he gets back from the south of France.
In a way, I can’t blame them. You can only rouse the public to defend something if the thing is generally considered worth defending. But so degraded is Parliament’s condition already — the consequence of many previous such assaults on parliamentary rights, each of which was thought too trivial on its own to be worth making a fuss — that it’s hard for the public to see what is being lost. It’s only Parliament, after all. It’s not as if it’s something important.
This is the problem. It’s not prorogation, on its own, that puts us on the path to despotism. It’s the cumulative weakening of our democratic defenses, and more important, of our democratic instincts. Each new precedent conditions us to accept the next, and the next, to the point that if we ever do arrive at the end of the Tyranny line, no one will even know, let alone care: we will have nothing left to compare it to. (We scoff at such overheated rhetoric now, but if Canadians in the 1950s had been presented with the package of changes that have occurred since then in the way we are governed, they would have risen up in revolt.) And if the public doesn’t care, neither will the opposition. You might think it was the job of a political leader to get out in front of the public on this — to, you know, lead — but if so, you don’t know Canadian politics.
In any case, the party leaders are in something of a conflict of interest. For one day they will be in government, or hope to be, and the powers and prerogatives the Harper conservatives have arrogated to themselves will be powers and prerogatives they may wish to enjoy. As, if experience is any guide, they almost certainly will. If there is one sure lesson of Canadian history, it is that no political principle long survives its first encounter with power. What most provokes a party leader in opposition is what he is most likely to practice once in government.
This isn’t really a contest, in other words, between the parties. It is between Parliament and government — present or prospective. If anyone is to defend the rights and privileges of Parliament, it will not be the party leaders. It will have to be ordinary members of Parliament.
But how likely is that? If MPs had the kind of backbone that would induce them to come to Parliament’s defense, they would have done so long before this. But of course they don’t. Any MP who showed the slightest tendency in that direction would find himself unable to get his nomination papers signed, and without the party’s backing could not hope to be elected. Independence of mind has been bred out of our MPs, much as dogs are bred not to bite.
So nothing is going to come of this, I’m afraid. It might, if Parliament mattered much, but as Parliament does not matter, it won’t.
UPDATE: In the interest of equal time, I should point out that there is also a facebook page for Canadians FOR Proroguing Parliament. So far they have 19 members, but one of them is Ezra.